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Through Hirschfeld’s Eyes

June 2024
17min read



They are not a particularly remarkable pair of eyes: chocolate brown, droopy-lidded, shaded by thick salt-and-pepper brows.


They are not a particularly remarkable pair of eyes: chocolate brown, droopy-lidded, shaded by thick salt-and-pepper brows.

But what they look like doesn’t matter; how they see does. They are the eyes of Al Hirschfeld, now ninety-five, the artist whose lithe and graceful caricatures have enlivened the pages of The New York Times for more than seventy years in a unique chronicle of the American theater. Hirschfeld’s eyes transform a performer so penetratingly that the individual comes to resemble the drawing rather than the other way around. And the process remains as mysterious to him now as it was when he began drawing as a child.

His life today seems to be as crammed as ever with new plans and projects. The past, he insists, is of no interest to him whatsoever. Yet his memories include the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway and the New York of the Algonquin Round Table.

Bearded, slight, and a bit bowlegged, Hirschfeld dresses in jumpsuits and wears his years lightly. He scurries about his four-story brick townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side, only occasionally using the electric banister chair to ride to his top-floor studio. A confident (some friends say harrowing) driver, he cruises around Manhattan in a Cadillac Brougham and drives himself to Boston or Philadelphia to see tryouts of Broadway-bound plays. He remains an enthusiastic traveler, six months older than the airplane, who declines to fly. Widowed in 1994, when his wife of fifty-two years, the actress Dolly Haas, died of cancer, he has since married a long-time friend, the theater historian Louise Kerz.

He works seven days a week. Perched in a barber chair he bought more than a half-century ago from a now-defunct shop in the Chrysler Building, he leans over a battered drawing board for hours at a time. He has attended virtually every triumph and turkey on Broadway for seven decades, and the drawings he has made of the stars of these countless stage productions, as well as of major films, operas, and radio and television programs, may very well remain the most indelible images of them for future generations. “To be a star on Broadway is to have one’s name in lights, yes, but it is also, and more significantly, to be drawn by Hirschfeld,” wrote Brendan Gill, the late theater critic for The New Yorker .

Hirschfeld readily acknowledges his artistic indebtedness to the great Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias, with whom he shared a studio in New York during the 1920s; to the Jazz Age cartoonist John Held, Jr., The New Yorker ’s Al Frueh, and the Japanese graphic masters Harunobu, Utamoro, and Hokusai; and even to Javanese shadow puppets. He also credits a 1931 visit to the island of Bali for ending any interest he once had in painting and sculpture. The intense Balinese sun, he has written, “seemed to bleach out all color, leaving everything pure line.” From then on, he says, his “attraction to drawing blossomed into an enduring love affair with line.”


Whenever he goes to the previews of a show, he carries an eight-by-ten-inch sketchbook with a supply of pencils taped inside its cover. Sketching in the dark, he will fill about half the pad with quickly jotted drawings—“hieroglyphics” he calls them—with such enigmatic notes as “fried eggs for eyes,” along with brief character, costume, and scenery descriptions. When he returns home, he studies his scribbles and blends his sketches, notes, and memory into a drawing. Although he continually strives to simplify, his style has remained remarkably consistent and instantly recognizable to generations of newspaper readers and theatergoers.

“Exaggeration of a feature, distorting reality, is not my idea of caricature. My problem is doing this in the simplest line.”

And even those only casually acquainted with his work know that ever since his daughter Nina’s birth fifty-two years ago, he has subtly woven her name into most of his caricatures. Hunting for the Ninas has become a pastime for countless admirers. Once, incredibly, it inspired a sixty-thousand-dollar research project by the Army, which sought to train bomber pilots to spot camouflaged targets by having them scan rapidly flashing slides of Hirschfeld drawings for the hidden Ninas .

In the early 1990s the United States Postal Service commissioned several series of commemorative stamps from Hirschfeld, one of famous comedians, another with stars of the silent screen. Art museums around the world have his drawings in their permanent collections; animators at the Walt Disney Studio acknowledge his influence on their creation of the genie character in Aladdin ; there is a CD-ROM about his life and career; a critically acclaimed documentary film about him, The Line King , opened in 1996; a few weeks later New York City designated him a “living landmark.” This year exhibits of his work are being mounted at both the Library of Congress and the National Portrait Gallery.

Al Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis on June 21, 1903, the son of a third-generation German-American and an independent “pioneer lady,” as he puts it, born in the Ukraine. They lived in a house that had no electricity, gas, or running water.

He began showing artistic promise at an early age, drawing and even sculpting when he was seven or eight. A local painter “convinced my mother that St. Louis was not a good town in which to raise me, so my mother packed up the whole family—three boys and my father—and brought us to New York.” They settled on the top floor of a wooden house in the still-rural area of Manhattan around 183d Street, and Hirschfeld went to the Vocational School for Boys during the day, learning lithography, printing, and etching, and both the National Academy of Art and Design and the Art Students League at night. He also began going to the theater in Manhattan, seeing among other performers the legendary Sarah Bernhardt on one of her many “farewell” tours.

By the time he was eighteen, he was the art director of Selznick Studios, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was owned by Louis J. Selznick, the father of David O. Selznick, who would become the producer of Gone With the Wind . Encouraged by the elder Selznick to open his own advertising art business to handle the studio’s needs, Hirschfeld lost his shirt when several movies flopped and the studio went bankrupt. “I decided at that time that I’d never work for anybody anymore. I’d be on my own.”

An uncle, impressed with Hirschfeld’s subsequent success at paying off his debts with his art, offered to send him to Europe. He bought a sixtyfive-dollar ticket on a ship headed for France in 1924 and spent the better part of the next three years there, painting oils and periodically returning to New York to earn enough money to continue his artistic endeavors abroad. He dates the dawn of his career as a theatrical caricaturist to a stateside visit in 1926, when a chance encounter with Richard Maney, a soon-to-be-famous publicist, changed his life.

Sitting in his studio on the day of our interview with a twenty-by-thirty-inch piece of tripleply cold-pressed illustration board before him, Hirschfeld contemplated a rough pencil sketch he had made of David Brinkley. The drawing was a “rush assignment,” Hirschfeld said, and the problem, as always, was daunting. The smooth, undulating, yet incisive line that characterizes his drawing actually emerges from his pen in small, meticulous strokes, centimeter by painstaking centimeter.

That line—sinewy, strong, decisive yet delicate—draws a direct link between the world of Weber and Fields and the world of Whoopi Goldberg, between Harry Lauder and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk . He connects, as no other artist ever will again, today’s theater with its modern origins.

You’ve written that everybody with five senses possesses the ability to see people as you do. Anyone can recognize friends at two hundred feet in a snowstorm or pick them out of a crowd, even if their features are obscured by a muffler or new hat. Your job, you say, is to use that universal skill to reduce a person into legible symbols. That sounds like magic to me.

Oh, yes. It’s alchemy. It is not a science. The procedure I follow, which is of my own making, is to create a problem and solve it. Now I’m doing this thing of Brinkley. It’s not a question of anatomy. It’s a question of capturing some kind of the fey quality that this fellow has. He’s a very learned fellow; he has a unique background. I don’t know how you capture that. I’ve been at this thing for a little while now and getting nowhere with it. But across the years you get a kind of assurance that since you’ve done it before, it’s probably going to work again—though you always have the feeling that maybe it won’t. It’s mysterious.

I suppose anatomy plays some part in it, but exaggeration of a feature, distorting reality, is not my idea of caricature. My problem is doing this in the simplest line that I can think of; I suppose what makes it palatable to an audience is that it eventually will look like the guy, but that’s not my primary purpose. My primary purpose is to do a drawing that will survive the personality or the play. I realize when I look at my old drawings that I don’t remember many of the plays at all. I don’t remember who wrote them, I don’t remember what the persons looked like. But every now and then one of the drawings manages to hold up pretty well, across the years.


When you went to Paris in 1924, you had no idea of becoming a caricaturist—or even of what to wear when you got there.

Yes. My father had never been to Europe, and his idea of Europe was from the comic strips—you know, Alphonse and Gaston, who wore striped trousers and cutaways. And that’s what he gave me—a cutaway coat and striped pants. I never opened that trunk in all the years I was in Paris. All I wore were corduroy pants and wooden sabots and a lumberjack shirt. I shared a hundred-dollar-a-year apartment in the Rue Vavin with two English fellows I met the first night I was in Paris. We just put a cloth over my trunk and used it as a table.

I know you tend to dismiss the nostalgia for Paris in the twenties, but you seem to have made the most of it. You knew Hemingway there, didn’t you? And he was not one of your favorite people, right?

That’s true. I thought Hemingway was a bully. I wasn’t unfriendly with him, but I just had no great regard for him, except as a writer. I don’t mean to demean him in any way, but I didn’t think he was very much, really, as a human being. Most of the people I liked are not household names, but there was a great camaraderie, and you got to know everyone there. I met S. J. Perelman in Paris in ’26 or ’27, and we became great friends across a lifetime.

And your acquaintances included Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald?

Yes. Gertrude Stein, of course, was the great provider for all these people. When you were hungry or cold, you could go to her apartment and warm up and have tea. And Alice Toklas, who lived with her, was also charming and wonderful to young artists. They were both very nice.

Now on one of your trips to New York, in late 1926, you saw a Broadway show and discovered your profession—although you didn’t know it at the time. How did that come about?

I went to the theater with Dick Maney. It was his first show as a press agent, a French production starring Sacha Guitry. I wasn’t interested in it, and during the performance I just nervously began scribbling on the program, and Dick looked at it, thought it looked like Guitry and had some of the qualities of the production we were looking at, and suggested that I do a drawing on a clean piece of paper and he would take it around to the papers and see if he could place it somewhere. Lo and behold, the following Sunday, big as life, there it was in the Herald Tribune , on the front theater page. I was flabbergasted. The next week the Tribune called and asked me to do a drawing on assignment. And it just grew.

I did drawings for Alexander Woollcott, at the old World , and the Telegram , the Telegraph , the Brooklyn Eagle . Then suddenly I got a telegram from The New York Times , asking me to do a drawing of Harry Lauder [the Scottish performer who gave as many “farewell” performances as Sarah Bernhardt]. And then it went on, these telegrams. I’d get a telegram from the Times every week or two. I never saw anybody at the paper.

In 1927 the Herald Tribune sent you to Moscow to draw and write about the Soviet theater and film industry, and you stayed for nearly a year. You subsequently did what some might call leftist lithographs for The New Masses . Did your time in Moscow and work for The New Masses cause you any trouble later, during the McCarthy period?


No, not at all. They never called me. It was very strange. I was never a member of the Communist party, although I thought it was the savior of the world at the time. But when I went back to the Soviet Union in '36 with Brooks Atkinson [the Times theater critic], I realized it was a swindle. That’s when I lost interest in politics. When I say that since then I have always been closer to Groucho Marx than to Karl, I’m not joking.

It seems 1927 was a milestone year for you in more ways than one. In addition to the months you spent in Moscow, you married your first wife, Florence Hobby, a chorus girl in Earl Carroll’s Vanities , and sort of settled in with The New York Times as your personal paper of record.

The Times said they didn’t like having me work for the other papers and said they wanted my drawings exclusively. I told them, “Just cross my palm with silver and I’m your fella,” and on the basis of a handshake agreement, I began doing theatrical drawings for the Times alone. That handshake arrangement remained in effect for more than sixty years. Just a few years ago they decided that we ought to have a contract, and so now we do.


If Paris in the twenties had Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, New York had the Algonquin Round Table, and you also knew all of the ladies and gentlemen who sat there, didn’t you?

Oh, yes. Robert Benchley was a marvelous, wonderful fellow. And Heywood Broun wrote an introduction to one of my art books. The Round Table was a logrolling society, you know, everybody calling everyone else a “genius.” But there was a camaraderie among artists and writers then that seems to have disappeared. It seems to me that nowadays artists and writers confine themselves and don’t like to share what they do with anyone. Back then everybody you knew you praised. Most of the Algonquin group were egocentric, but they helped each other.

You had some memorable encounters with James Thurber elsewhere.

Yes, I used to see him at parties, where he would play tricks with his glass eye. He had lost an eye as a child. He had a collection of glass eyes, and as the evening went on, he would change them, with each one becoming more bloodshot. At about two o’clock in the morning, he’d put one in, and it would be a little American flag! It was a shocker. You’d look at him, and there’s a little flag flying there in his eye.

Wasn’t it around this time that you got to know George Gershwin?

I met him over at [the writer] Howard Dietz’s. Dietz was very friendly with the Gershwins, and I became very friendly with them. Gershwin lived on Riverside Drive. There was his mother and Ira and his sister, Frances, and his sister-in-law, Leonore. I think I was the one who introduced George to Oscar Levant, who was one of the great interpreters of his music and became his close friend. I first saw Levant performing at a small caf» called the Club Duv», at Waverly Place and Sixth Avenue. I was impressed by him and took George there to see him.


In 1931 you decided to leave all of this and go to Tahiti with your wife to pursue oil painting and watercolors.

And that very romantic adventure broke up the marriage.

You didn’t think much of Tahiti either, did you?

No, I thought it was a tourist trap. I wrote to Covarrubias, who was living with his wife in Bali at the time, that the native life in Tahiti looked as if it had been imported from central casting in Hollywood. He wrote back that I should come to Bali, which is in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies. He and his wife had returned home by the time I got there, but Bali was everything they had said it would be. Bali changed the way I saw the world.

“The whole star system is gone . . . the extroverts, the exploded ventricles, the bigger-than-life performers—they’re gone.”

Didn’t you see Charlie Chaplin there?

Yes, he helped me get off the island. He came through on a roundthe-world cruise with his brother, Sydney. I had known him before, had done some drawings of him when he was in Path» films, so I went to the ship and asked him to come out to my compound for dinner. He was very pleased, since he didn’t know anyone on the island, and he and Sydney came, and we became very friendly. He was marvelous. This was 1931, and there was no electricity on the island, so he was not known there. I think it was the only place in the world he wasn’t known. When he discovered that no one knew who he was, he wanted to see if the people there would laugh at the same material he used in his films—and they did. Some native children did some dances, and after one of the dances he got up and did an imitation of one of the dancers, and they just screamed with laughter. He then proceeded to put the pith helmet that he carried with him on his head, and it sprang crazily into the air, as if it were alive. The natives howled, thinking his hat was possessed by the devil. When they were shown how simple the trick was, they tried desperately to snap their turbans in the air in the same way. They were enchanted with him. They called him “the funny man.”

He also turned out to be an art patron.

Yes. I had been wondering how I would earn the money to return to America. Chaplin bought up all my watercolors, and that gave me the fare home.

Back in New York by 1932, you resumed the theatrical caricaturing you haven’t stopped since. The differences between Broadway then and now are profound, aren’t they? How do you decide what shows to preview and draw now, and how did you do it then?


In recent years there’s no question about what I will do if there’s an opening. There are only one or two a week, at the most. It used to be a hassle because there’d be four or five openings in one night. You’d have first-, second-, third-, fourth-string reviewers. They’d take them from the sports department to cover a show. And then there was the question of what we’d use for the first page of the drama section. It usually was based on the track record of the producer or the star or the playwright.

And now they call you up and say, will you do this or that?

Yes, or if it’s something that I want to do, I might suggest it, and they usually say fine, go ahead.

I know you’re not much for nostalgia, but today’s casualness is a far cry from the glamour that once was Broadway, isn’t it? Do you miss that glamour?

I don’t know that I miss it. But I can’t get used to the idea that on opening night a fellow takes his overcoat off and he’s in his shirtsleeves or dungarees. They used to come with top hats and in carriages. At Forty-second Street and Broadway you’d have about eight or ten droshkies out front. That disappeared, of course. These things change across time, and you get used to it. It’s only when I’m reminded of them that I realize that the changes have been great. It happens so gradually.


Has your ability to spot a potential hit gotten better over the decades you’ve been assessing plays?

It’s about the same as when I started: usually wrong. You don’t learn anything. I’ve seen plays on the road that I thought were going to be big hits but turned out to be disasters, and I’ve seen shows that I doubted would even make it to Broadway that turned out to be hits.

Away We Go was one of those. It opened in New Haven in 1943. Lawrence Langner, the producer, was nervous about its prospects, and he asked me to have a coffee with him in the Taft Hotel after a New Haven performance. I come into the Taft, and there’s Billy Rose [then proprietor of the famous Golden Horseshoe nightclub and husband of the Follies comedienne Fanny Brice] and Mike Todd [future husband of Elizabeth Taylor and later the producer of Around the World in 80 Days ] at a table, and I sat with them. Lawrence came in and sat down with us and said, “Listen, I’ve asked you fellows here to tell me the truth about this. I have no idea about musicals. Is it any good? Just level with me.” Well, Mike Todd said, “Do you want the truth? Listen, if it was my show, I’d close it. Forget it. You don’t have a chance. Just close it.” Rilly Rose says. “Wait a minute, there are a couple of tunes in there that are not bad. If it were mine, I’d certainly open in Boston and work on it and try to rearrange it.” And I said I liked the ballet in it.


Well, I came back to the Times with a report that this show might not reach Broadway. So I went up to Boston to see the new Ziegfeld Follies , starring Milton Berle, deciding that I would do a drawing on that instead. During the intermission the press agent from the Theatre Guild came over and said, “Listen, stay over and catch the matinee tomorrow of Away We Go . We’ve changed the title to Oklahoma! , and it’s not bad.”

I went to the opening night of Oklahoma! , and the curtain rises. There’s an unknown actor, Alfred Drake, who opens with a song that used to end the first act, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'.” And you realize that you’re in the presence of a hit. That’s what happens. But it damn near closed out of town!

Now in 1947 you became part of an incredibly talented quartet of would-be musical creators, with S. J. Perelman and Ogden Nash, who had worked on Kurt Weill’s smash One Touch of Venus , and the composer Vernon Duke. Perelman asked you to collaborate with him on the book of a new musical, Sweet Bye and Bye , and it didn’t even survive its tryouts in Philadelphia. How could guys like you produce such a flop?

Well, you never know what an audience’s reaction is going to be until you have it up there on the stage. Sweet Bye and Bye takes place in the future. And we discovered that writing music for the future is almost impossible. In prose you can be as satirical as you want about the future. Visually you can do it. And Ogden’s lyrics were marvelous. But once the music starts, either you’re back in the year when you’re sitting there watching it or it’s pretentious.

The assumption in this play is that you reopen the time capsule at the site of the 1939 World’s Fair. In opening the capsule, we take out various objects that are in there. Well, all of that works. But then you’re suddenly in 2076, and now you’ve got to get music that’s being played in 2076. Well, the composer, naturally, is living in our time and age, and he wants royalties on this music, so he can’t go too far off. Vernon Duke, who was a hell of a good composer, he had six harpists in this. It was almost impossible. It was such a disaster we had to leave the country.


Broadway has long been called the “fabulous invalid.” How’s the patient doing today?

There are more theaters now than ever before. Broadway itself is suffering, but off-Broadway and off-offBroadway are flourishing. And now each production is like starting U.S. Steel: You need eight million dollars to put on a musical. You used to need twenty thousand dollars for a musical; five thousand, eight thousand dollars for a straight play. The producer had complete control and used his own judgment; now it’s committees, and everybody has a point of view. It’s a difficult thing. And the whole star system is gone. People run two or three years in a production, the production closes, and you never hear of them again. They open a boutique on Madison Avenue, selling underwear or something.

If the star system isn’t what it used to be, is that also true for the performers you have to draw? I know you’ve often expressed a preference for actors who don’t close a door but slam it—people like Zero Mostel, Carol Charming, Katharine Hepburn, Ray B#8217;f6iger, Bert Lahr, or the Marx Brothers.

Yes, the extroverts, the exploded ventricles, the bigger-than-life performers—they’re gone. Well, not gone, but changing form. The performer today is actually better equipped to perform than at any other time I can remember, particularly in musicals. I mean, a girl who used to be able to tap-dance—well, everybody would single her out and write special material for her. Now these girls come on and do ballet. I mean, tap dance is almost Kinderspiel .

But you find caricaturing them more challenging?

Well, it’s difficult to establish a trademark for them. With Zero or Carol Channing or Helen Hayes, everybody knew what they looked like, so it was easy, since all humor is based on recognition. I remember Ray B#8217;f6iger telling me that he copied what was in my drawings. I looked at him as though he was bereft of his senses. I said, “That’s ridiculous. All I’m doing is eliminating gravity, just pushing what you’re doing a little further.” He said, “Well, that’s what I copy.” Those performers knew what they looked like. They invented themselves.

I wonder what you think Broadway’s—or live theater’s—prospects are, as well as what the outlook is for graphic arts, given all this electronic competition?

I tried drawing on a computer for a CD-ROM, and it’s very difficult to control what you’re doing. But that may be improved. Trying to guess the future—it’s one of those things I’m not good at. As for the theater, well, it managed to compete against radio and television; I imagine it still will exist yet. The fabulous invalid has a way of surviving.

The Margo Feiden Galleries on Madison Avenue, which has been selling your original drawings and lithographs now for thirty years, estimates that you’ve produced seven thousand original drawings over the past seven decades. Do you have a favorite?

The one I’m working on. If it works out, that will be my favorite.

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